Californians have just won a right that we all hope we will never need to use: the right to a physician-assisted death.
After a long and tortured battle to get a bill to him, Gov. Jerry Brown signed California's End of Life Option Act. After what was clearly deep consideration, he concluded: "I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn't deny that right to others."
Wise words, especially coming from a lifelong Catholic. Physician-assisted dying (PAD) is part of a spectrum of efforts to improve care at the end of our lives. Such care has improved where assisted dying has been legalized, and it can here as well.
For those opposed to this option, of course, the choice not to request assisted dying remains. And strict guidelines will make any such deaths the most scrutinized of all, preventing coercion. In fact, most people with a terminal disease—the only ones who can request PAD—will not follow through. The irony is that reassuring such patients they will not be abandoned in this regard can actually lengthen their final days, for having some sense of control is a crucial issue.
This new law is a tribute to countless AIDS, cancer and other patients who worked to make it become reality. What is crucial now is that healthcare professionals and others work on everyone's behalf so that the best care is available to all, and to ensure that each of us document our wishes in advance healthcare directives, living wills and the newer "physician orders for life-sustaining treatment forms." The "Palin death panel amendment" to Obamacare should be reversed so that more discussions about end-of-life-care planning will take place, and access to hospice care should be expanded.
But, alas, there will most likely always be a relative few cases where suffering remains unrelieved, and this new right to die then becomes, in fact and practice, a part of what real healing can mean.
Steve Heilig is a former hospice caregiver who has published widely on PAD, including conducting the first survey of physician opinions on this topic. Open Mic is a weekly feature in the 'Bohemian.' We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write firstname.lastname@example.org.